5/21/2019 7:30:00 AM Northwoods Transit Connections struggles to leave problems in the past
Mario Koran Special to the Lakeland Times
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m., seniors and disabled riders file on to the buses at Northwoods Transit Connections (NTC) pickups.
These are the riders NTC was created to help. With its current routes, the transit organization now connects more communities than ever. In January, NTC added a loop connecting Woodruff, St. Germain, Eagle River, Three Lakes, Sugar Camp, and Rhinelander.
Two buses drive the same loop in opposite directions - giving riders the shortest routes to their destinations - three days a week. That's in addition to the on-demand services NTC offers riders who call a day in advance to set up a ride.
NTC now says it provides about 4,000 one-way rides a month, and transit manager Roger Youngren said he hopes to add more riders as the public is made aware of the service and offer the fixed routes five days a week.
Dianne Jacobson, director of Oneida County's Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), said this is the first time in her 22 years a service like this has been provided. ADRC provides transportation to doctors' appointments, but nothing like this has been available for members of the public, she said.
Jacobson played a hand in launching NTC. ADRC now provides a pass-through grant for NTC to serve some of its clientele. In addition, last year the transit organization finished the year $5,600 in the black, which Jacobson sees as a sign the NTC has left behind years of financial turmoil.
But as the transit agency reaches for stable financial footing, it's dogged by questions about its past and present. The transit commission has not performed independent audits required by its charter, for example, which led the Oneida County administration committee last week to threaten withdrawal unless the commission contracts for an audit within 30 days.
In addition, margins remain thin. And rumors about potential conflicts of interest for board members led the Oneida County administration committee to require that the upcoming audit include a review of whether potential conflicts exist or have existed.
A larger question about the degree to which government can or should compete against private enterprises lingers.
As a result of all that, a growing number of board members from both Oneida and Vilas counties are calling for answers before it approves NTC's plans for expansion.
"I'll tell you one thing, if this were a private industry, it would be chapter 11 in receivership," said Oneida County supervisor Ted Cushing.
NTC's early years
Before NTC's inception, transportation in the area was provided by a patchwork of private services or county agencies supported by grants. The Aging and Disability Resource Center, for example, provided transportation to seniors and riders with disabilities to and from medical appointments.
Jacobson said about 10 years ago, county leaders recognized that grant funds existed for transportation in rural areas and, to maximize grant funding, Oneida, Vilas, and Forest counties agreed to create a multi-county transportation agency.
Forest County later dropped out of the arrangement, but Vilas and Oneida moved forward. In 2015, supervisors from both counties approved the charter.
Today, the agency operates as a multi-county agency, with relative autonomy on its day-to-day operations, but answerable to both county boards on major funding decisions or changes to its charter.
NTC opened its doors in 2015, but struggled to find its footing. Emails obtained through public records requests paint a picture of an agency in financial havoc for most of its first years.
Financial trouble began when NTC learned the federal and state grants on which they depended would be late arriving, leaving NTC short on cash flow. Buses that NTC purchased sat idle for months while the organization waited for funds to be approved.
"You hate to see a new bus sitting idle until they could get the funds," Jacobson said. "But that was a learning experience."
In 2018, a shake-up stirred the agency when former NTC manager Jim Altenburg suddenly resigned from his post. Reasons for his departure were not disclosed at the time, and commission chairman Erv Teichmiller declined to comment, citing personnel privacy concerns.
Transit commissioners have said NTC has turned a corner in the time since then. The transit commission enlisted the help of consultants to institute best practices. NTC tapped Roger Youngren to lead the agency as manager.
Under Youngren, NTC finished last year under budget, a feat that once seemed improbable.
In a meeting this March, transit commission member Bob Mott chalked up the problems to growing pains and to board members who didn't have experience running a transit agency.
About 2017, Mott said: "It was a tough year. We overspent early, and then we had to cut back later. We had to bring in some help," he said, referencing consultants.
"We knew that it wasn't one of Jim (Altenburg's) strong points and it turns out that that was very true," he said. "And we're new at it and we didn't know. We'd never been on a commission of transit before. So we had faith that all was being done correctly."
Two years later, that the transit commission was new to the work is still being used as an explanation. They insist the picture has brightened.
But financial hurdles remain. The agency still has no garage for a mechanic to work on its fleet of 15 vehicles. NTC is still located in a building it initially hoped to be temporary.
And despite ending the year in the black, the agency stills owes $50,000 to both Vilas and Oneida counties for funding the counties put up to get the agency off the ground in 2015.
At a meeting in March, transit committee member and Oneida County supervisor Bob Mott referenced the debt, and said Oneida County supervisor Ted Cushing had inquired about the repayment.
"Ted Cushing is always asking for that $50,000 back," Mott said. "And so I told him we were like $5,600 in the black this year. He said, 'That means that money is coming back to us?' And I said, 'We're building the pot. We're going to get to it. Sit back and relax.'"
Asked for his response to the comment, Cushing said: "We get the same answer every time we ask it: 'We don't have it and we couldn't operate if we have to pay it back. Then they want our permission to go borrow more money for new buses.'"
"It's getting to the point where there needs to be a plan in place for repayment," Cushing continued. "I don't care if it comes in installments. I firmly believe there needs to be an audit. I have no idea what it needs to turn up, but it's my opinion from the beginning that transit has been mismanaged."
Private vs. government
NTC was envisioned as a way to supplement private transportation companies - a person may not be able to afford a 40-mile taxi ride, for instance, but they could take a cab to the transit's pickup location and ride the bus from there.
In theory, the relationship is mutually beneficial. In practice, however - at least according to private transportation operators in the area - the arrangement hasn't worked out as planned.
The owners of DISCAB and Stargazer Limousine Service, two private transportation providers in the area, say their businesses have been hit hard in the years since NTC opened its doors.
Matthew Daily, owner of DISCAB, said NTC has cut so far into the bone he's been forced to consider closing.
"I think about that every day," he said. "Every day I think about it. It's month to month for the last two years."
Carrie Linzmeier, owner of Stargazer, said she wouldn't be able to operate a company by offering rates similar to NTC, with fees as low as $1 or $2.
"We can't compete with their pricing," Linzmeier said. "It makes a private business like ours look like it's trying to take advantage of people."
Linzmeier said relations with NTC soured in 2017 over a deal to provide transportation for the Lakeland Nordic Ski Team to Winter Park - a deal both entities vied for, but eventually went to NTC. To meet WisDOT requirements, NTC later began offering members of the general public rides to Winter Park along with the ski team.
Public transit agencies are allowed to submit bids on contracts as long as they make the bidding public and inform other providers, but former transit manager Jim Altenburg quoted prices months in advance and moved on the contract in private, an official from WisDOT said at the time.
NTC continues to provide transportation for the ski team, though transit manager Youngren said no contract, written agreements, or MOUs exist. Asked about the amount of the contract, Youngren provided a monthly invoice indicating the ski team paid NTC $984 for transportation in February.
Lakeland Nordic Ski Team manager Heather Van Hefty said $984 has been the recent monthly fee, and confirmed the team doesn't have a written contract with NTC. They pay the monthly fee based on transportation needs. She said the team has been happy with the transportation provided by NTC.
"It's definitely been a huge asset to provide safe transportation for our kids within the budget of a nonprofit," Van Hefty said, referencing the ski team's funding structure.
But where some see NTC meeting the needs of the community, others see a taxpayer subsidized transportation agency that effectively operates as a private taxi company.
"What it is is a cheap ride," Oneida County supervisor Scott Holewinski said. "People who can afford to drive are taking the buses to save money and the transit commission takes them to drive up their numbers. They've turned it into a cab company, not a public bus company."
From her desk, NTC officer manager Barb Newman can watch the buses crawl across her computer monitor in real time. GPS shows where the buses are and even how fast they're traveling. Drivers who speed register an alert back at headquarters.
Riders can hop on the bus at set pickup locations and ride fixed routes, or they can schedule an individual ride. Newman said the tracking and scheduling systems are just two of the improvements the agency has made in recent years to streamline operations.
In Woodruff, Eagle River, and Rhinelander, riders can use NTC as an on-demand service if they call ahead to schedule a ride 24 hours in advance. Riders must live within a certain radius of the hub - in Woodruff's case, that's Walgreens - to be able to utilize the on-demand service.
But the radius for services has been one area of confusion for riders, in part because staff members have given conflicting messages about the distance.
In an interview with The Lakeland Times, Youngren said riders must live within an eight-mile radius of Walgreens.
"It used to be five miles, but that wasn't strictly enforced," he said.
But the rule didn't seem flexible to Amy Kolberg, whose husband Cliff relied on NTC for rides to Past Time Club, an adult day center for individuals with early dementia.
As Kolberg tells the story, she called Youngren one day to check on whether a ride for her husband was still scheduled, when Youngren surprised her with news NTC would no longer provide transportation for her husband because they lived more than five miles from Walgreens, even though Kolberg had been paying double the required fee because they lived farther from town.
Kolberg contacted Teichmiller, who wrote in an email to Youngren: "I've been concerned that the changes we have made will leave some folk, whom we have served for two and a half years, would be left out and on their own. Given her situation, I can understand her frustration and her being upset. We don't need her negative PR."
"I can understand that as well," Youngren replied, "but if we start making exceptions we will simply not be able to provide timely service to many customers in the Lakeland area."
Kolberg ultimately established transportation with the Oneida County Aging and Disability Resource Center, which provides rides for seniors living outside of NTC coverage areas in buses operated by volunteer drivers.
Kolberg said she's happy she found help, but the changes disrupted her husband's routine, something that's exceedingly difficult for someone with dementia.
Regardless, the sudden shifts suggest policies are subject to change on a whim, with little notice to the public or the riders who depend on the routes. And more changes could be on the way.
At a meeting in April, Teichmiller said NTC may have to decrease services if they are made to pay for an audit - a requirement the transit commission has known about since its inception - which could further disrupt riders' routines.
Meanwhile, while the commission deals with operations and services, and struggles to maintain a viable financial position, and while the debate about competing with the private sector continues, the commission's next struggle looms: the audit demand from Oneida County.
At the administration committee's May 14 meeting, Mott assured supervisors the transit commission will perform the audit. He also said he hopes and believes the audit will put all the controversial issues to rest, and the commission can then move forward with what he sees as steady progress in providing transportation to a vulnerable population.
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